By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Sunday, August 1, 2010 • Hollywood Bowl
Next concert: Tuesday, August 3: Dudamel conducts Bernstein and Gershwin
Hollywood Bowl holds a special place in Gustavo Dudamel’s heart. In 2005 the curly haired, then-24-year-old Venezuelan maestro made his U.S. debut in the Cahuenga Pass amphitheater, a stunning performance that would lead to him being named the Los Angeles Philharmonic music director just two years later. Last October, he began his tenure as the Phil’s 11th leader with ¡Bienvenido Gustavo! an all-day free concert at the Bowl with more than 17,000 screaming fans in attendance.
Last night, Dudamel returned to Los Angeles for the first time since the Philharmonic’s cross-country tour in May to lead his first opera in the U.S.: Bizet’s Carmen. It’s a work with which he has roots; he has already led a staged performance of this popular work in Caracas and will conduct it again at Teatro alla Scala in Milan in October and November.
Last night’s performance, with 12,831 in attendance, was a concert rendition of the entire work. The “staging” consisted of singers walking on and off the stage. The blue lighting of the second act (darkness having finally come to the Bowl) caused a surfeit of flash photography from the audience and the final scene bathed in red was a too-obvious touch for an act that ends with Carmen’s death. However, notwithstanding the usual Bowl distractions — including one particularly obnoxious low-flying helicopter — the evening proved to be enchanting.
Not every opera works in a concert setting but Carmen does. Bizet’s score has music that is at various points exciting, lush, romantic and playful. The story is easy to follow, especially since the large video screens offered supertitles (although the 7:30 start time meant that it wasn’t until well into the first act that they were easily readable for most people). I certainly missed the sets (the Met’s HD telecast of Carmen earlier this year was still in my mind) but Dudamel, the Philharmonic, a strong cast, and first-rate choral work by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus overcame that liability.
Dudamel — who was dressed discretely in all black and conducted from a score — seemed perfectly at home conducting opera; one wonders why LA Opera officials haven’t already found a way to engage him for an upcoming production (there may be contractual issues that prevent it).
Last night Dudamel brought a good deal of rhythmic propulsion to the nearly three-long evening but also invested much sensitivity into his this familiar score. Many of his now-familiar conducting gestures were in evidence (the cameras focused nearly all of the non-vocal moments on Gustavo) — conducting with minimal baton gestures for long stretches of music, precise muscular attacks for emphasis and his infectious grin — but most of the time I had the feeling that this was how he will lead the La Scala production even when the cameras aren’t trained on him.
The Philharmonic was in top form, not an easy thing to do with the quirky Bowl rehearsal schedules and the fact that many of its musicians had undoubtedly never played the complete score; they really do have a special affinity for Gustavo. The “entr’acte” sections were particularly effective, with special kudos to flutist Catherine Ransom Karoly.
The cast was uniformly strong, although splotchy amplification sometimes made effective evaluation pure guesswork. Some of the singers wore body mics, while others used standing microphones onstage, which have contributed to the uneven sound.
Natscha Petrinsky, who sang the title role under Dudamel in Caracas, was a powerhouse last night and certainly looked the part of in her alluring red dress. She had a lot of anger in her voice and facial gestures (she always seemed to be scowling when the camera focused on her) but it was a gripping performance, if somewhat one-dimensional.
South Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee partnered her effectively as Don Jose, although the amplification often seemed to muffle his sound. Alexia Voulgaridou’s powerful portrayal of Micaëla was one of the evening’s highlights and Kyle Ketelsen had plenty of swagger as Escamillo. Others in the cast were François Lis (Zurniga), Mathias Hausmann (Moralès), Mariana Ortiz (Frasqauita), Jennifer Holloway (Mercédès), José Adán Pérez (El Dancarïo) and Hak Seo Kim (El Remendado.
• In past years, I’ve suspected that Bowl officials may have inflated attendance figures but this year it seems to be the other way around. I was astonished when last Tuesday’s crowd count was announced as 6,246 and it’s hard to believe that another 5,000 could have been crammed into the Bowl last night. Nothing earthshaking, just interesting — obviously my eye for counting leaves a lot to be desired, although I seem come closer to the number at Dodger Stadium.
• The concert benefitted the musicians pension fund and they donated their services for the evening.
• Dudamel continues his Bowl week tomorrow night with a Bernstein-Gershwin concert and concludes Thursday with an eclectic concert that ends with Ravel’s Bolero.
(c) Copyright 2010, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.